Monday, March 31, 2008

March 31, 2008--Snowbirding: My Inner Fish (Concluded)

If you require further evidence about the truth of Evolution, come to Florida in March when the Spinner Sharks are migrating.

Last Tuesday, waiting for the appearance of inspiration in my writing room from which I have an unimpeded view of the Atlantic, they were on full display. Tracking north, following their food supply—in this case I learned, Spanish Mackerel--vast schools of these ancient predators thrashed in a feeding frenzy that roiled the otherwise flaccid ocean.

It was clear even to an uninformed observer why they have earned their common name, “Spinner” (more pictorial than the Latin, Carcharhinus Brevipinna), as they frequently leapt fully from the ocean and as if thrilled to leave their natural home if only for a moment to spin joyously glinting in sunlight. While overhead, ignoring them, circled scores of clamoring gulls and pelicans, both of which from great heights slammed headlong into the water to gather their share of whatever the ravenous Spinners had left behind.

Even before this riotous display I had been thinking about fish and even doing some reading about them. They are everywhere down here. Not just outside my window and not easy to ignore. There is their sport and commercial side. The Old Dixie Seafood Shop, for instance, just down the road is where fish boat captains bring their catch and the proprietors clean and display them in sparkling ice chests. There’s local Snapper and Red Mullet and Mahi Mahi. Swordfish from the Gulf Stream and whatever Tuna remains after the rest is snatched up by the Japanese fish buyers. The owner’s wife turns the occasional Wahoo into grillable steaks and whatever doesn’t get sold she transmutes into an incandescent salad flavored with just the right dash of celery-seed-suffused Old Bay. And then there are their specialties—Key-West style Conch Chowder and Smoked Marlin. They tell us that the Marlin spread is so popular that they sell 80 pounds of it a week. All from a tattered shack of a shop on an out-of-the-way stretch of, yes, the Old Dixie Highway.

But my reading takes me to very different places—to visit our deeper relationship to fish. Well beyond all the local surfcasting, sport fishing, and the resulting pleasures of the kitchen and table.

I had known from just a dollop of poorly-taught high school biology, when they still unfettered taught Evolution in public schools, that an even more fantastic transmutation than that which is at work at the Old Dixie Market with the Wahoo is the evidence that humans are no more than evolved fish. Fish that on a day, eons past, wallowed up onto land and of those that survived in this dramatically new environment they slowly passed along to us many of the physical characteristics that we too casually see to be unique to our own species.

For example, our boney head and large brain case with our sense organs fastened on are vestiges of our fish origins. And the fact that we have two ears, two nostrils, and two eyes set ideally apart, all essential to our survival, creativity, and progress, are also descended from fish, which also carry their sense organs in pairs.

The spines that allow us to walk upright so we can traverse the earth in giant bounding strides are modified versions of fishes’ spiny innards. All it takes to make that point is to observe what a waiter sets quickly aside after he at tableside filets your broiled Pompano. It takes hardly any imagination to see the relationship between a fish’s inner scaffolding and our endoskeleton.

Fins in humans became arms and legs; and our hinged jaw, tongue, and enameled teeth are as well gifts from the sea. Also fishes’ cranial nerves are not that far from our own. In fact, premeds who struggle to recognize, identify, and memorize their sequence begin by dissecting the skull or chondocrania of Dogfish Sharks. If they do so successfully, as I pathetically attempted, they discover descending first the Olfactory nerve, then the Optic, next the Oculomotor, after that the Trochlear, the Trigeminal . . . and finally the Vegus. All remarkably similar to what one would discover the first year in medical school. (Though I opted out before then and cannot offer direct testimony.)

And more recent studies of our distant cousins reveal that fish have many of the same social skills that make us, it appears, not-so-uniquely human. Most live in schools in large part so that they can be of help to each other, engaging routinely in acts of considerable, apparently generous fish-to-fish reciprocity.

African Cichlids typically live in groups of 10 or more and include a breeding pair and an assortment of helpers. Some of the workers defend their territory, others make sure the nests are cleaned, and still others do the hard work of oxygenating the breeding pair’s eggs. And remarkably, hear this human relatives, these so-called helper fish aren’t even biologically related to those they tend. They apparently do this thankless work so that they can benefit from the security against predators and the food supply made available by their collective behavior.

And fascinatingly some fish even experience menopause! To bad for them, and why did they need to pass this too along to us? I like my three-dimensional vision, but . . .

Enough reading! I needed to move this research out of my study and into the real biological world to see if what I had been learning in books could be tested and verified. And so, during the Spinner Shark migration season, unafraid, I took to the beach. With Rona not more than two steps behind. I suspected, to save me from myself.

In my mind it was like entering a scene from Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws. I could almost hear that foreboding music thumping relentlessly above the muted surf. But unlike in Jaws the beach was preternaturally deserted. No one was standing ankle-deep in water, ominously looking out to sea in search of the fearsome Great White that was ravaging their community. Better the empty beach, I thought, to enable me undistracted to pursue my primordial explorations. Sharks I was seeking to be sure, but for what they could teach me or confirm what I had plucked from my reading about our ancestral relationship. This was not to be some cheap thrill from a Dime Novel or tawdry movie. No, mine was to be the work of a budding naturalist.

But wouldn’t you know that the first thing that caught my eye was a single footprint, the only one left behind by the wash of the lowering tide.

“Friday!” I cried out to the startled Rona. “Look,” I pointed in my delirium, “It’s Friday.”

“What are you talking about?” the gasping Rona managed to say. She was out of breath from having to trot to keep up with me. “It’s Thursday, silly. I know when we live this way it’s hard not to confuse the days of the week.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean it’s who I mean. Don’t you see it’s just like Friday?” In my excitement the words came out twisted as I pointed again at the quickly eroding footprint.

She passed along that familiar smile she employed when she found herself in need of humoring me. Typically, like that day on the beach, when I was off on one of my fancies, which I had to admit were occurring more and more frequently during our unstructured days. And I quickly realized that this was another of those occasions and that I had allowed my literary imagination to distract me from my emerging interest in interspecies transmission.

Enough with Jaws and now enough with Robinson Crusoe! I was determined that from now on it would be strictly science and nothing but.

Friday would resolve itself again into the day before the weekend because the time I was needed to know more about would remain the Devonian, the geologic Period during the Paleozoic Era that lasted from about 415 to 360 million years ago when that first fish decided to try its luck on land and seed-bearing plants appeared upon and spread across the earth. This, I assured myself, was not going to be just another late afternoon 20th century AD walk on Delray’s beach.

And as if the sea and land could read my thoughts and in so doing generously chose to reveal some of their secrets, I saw right by the margin where the water met the sand edge signs of the kind of earth-shaping forces that carved our Grand Canyon, etched the shapes we see now across our vast western badlands, and put down those sedimentary deposits where the fossil record reveals the exoskeleton and story of those first amphibious creatures that are ultimately our parents. A microcosm of geological processes compressed in the brief time it takes for an exchange of tides.

“Look Rona,” I said, pointing again, “look at this.”

“What is it this time?” I sensed some exasperation. “What are you pointing at?”

“Right here. Right there. A miniature Grand Canyon.”

“You must be joking. We’re in Florida remember? Has the sun gotten to you already?”

“I’m not joking. Come here and take a look.” Hands on hips Rona sauntered slowly toward me. “You need to come quickly. The next surge of waves will wipe it away.”

“What kind of Grand Canyon is it that a little wavelet,” there was virtually no surf, “that a little swell of water can obliterate something that took eons [she was playing with me] to erode?”

“I’m not saying it’s a real canyon. Only that what took, what, 20 million years for Nature to achieve in Arizona is happening right here now in just a few hours!” Rona was staring skeptically at me rather than at what was in evidence right there at her feet. “I know you think I’m crazy,” she was nodding vigorously, “but I mean it. The same forces at work here are the ones that carved that wonder. Water in rapid motion, with sand grit suspended in it, is etching away at the subsurface just as the Colorado River did its thing out west.” I looked plaintively at her.

Rona knew these “insights” were important to me so she relented a bit. “Can we move on? It’s almost time for our afternoon drink and I thought we were out here looking for sharks. Not to imagine ourselves onto Defoe’s island, teach Friday English, or search for the origins of the western landscape.”

“I hear you, but indulge me one more thing. I’ll take a pass on the canyon-building stuff--though if you glance directly down on what’s right below the water here you’ll have to admit it looks remarkably like looking out on the Mohave from 40,000 feet.” Rona, with her arm folded across her chest, was now looking at me out of the corner of her eye. She checked the time on her watch in spite of the fact that she wasn’t wearing one. I knew I had only a few more minutes of her attention.

“I mean see all those shells that you like to rummage around in? Thousands, millions of them that keep getting deposited here with every tide. What do you think will happen to them in 10 million years? Limestone, that’s what. They’ll be turned into limestone and in it, as it compresses, paleontologists will 10 million years from now find the remains of these Gulls and Sand Pipers and Pelicans.”

“And me and you too,” Rona muttered, “if we don’t get a move on.”

In an attempt to acknowledge her sense of impatience, I pressed on and said, “But where are my sharks? The earth works business is fine, but I’m on a mission here.” I smiled, I’m searching for my earliest cousins.”

As if on cue, and to rescue me, right before us, not more than ten yards from the beach, another feeding frenzy exploded as dozens of Spinner Sharks descended upon a school of Spanish Mackerel that had become trapped between a series of shoals that were among the very ones I had been claiming were proto-canyons.

Both Rona and I instinctually jumped backwards to escape this thrashing about though no danger was evident. The sharks were much more interested in their Sashimi earlybird dinner than anything our flesh might offer.

“Look at that,” I cried, “Have you ever seen anything more basic, more natural, more primitive?”

“No comment,” Rona snorted. “It’s getting late.”

“Come on, admit it, this is exciting. Isn’t it?”

She finally smiled at me as the light lowered and blew me a kiss, “I do love you. You’re such a boy.” And added, “Yes, I’m excited. I love seeing animals in the wild. Even here in Condoland.”

As we were exchanging air kisses, the mackerel, in a hopeless attempt to escape, had worked their way closer to the beach. Those that had managed to avoid being consumed were hovering in just inches of water. Every time a wave retreated to the ocean, exposed to the air, they flopped desperately around on the sand, frantically trying to get back into the water and safety. Though there they would again have to contend with the sharks which continued to hover, waiting patiently in somewhat deeper water.

That is all but one of the sharks lurked out there to avoid the danger of finding themselves hopelessly beached. That one, we watched in rapt fascination, was working its way through the channels (my canyons) that had been scooped out by the relentless waves.

The mackerel shivered, huddling closer together as they observed their fate approaching. By now the water was so shallow that the shark’s dorsal fin, Jaws like, pierced the surface of the water. The movie music again started up in my head.

It moved in on the first cornered group and snapped up all of them as if it were vacuuming debris from the sea bottom. And then just as quickly it turned to the left where another small school was attempting to hide. The shark was so intent on completing its carnage that it ignored the underwater contours and thus found itself beached on a small ridge. By wiggling its body from side to side it managed to slide off and back into the safety of the relatively deeper water on one side of the mini-shoal.

But while it had been hung up half out of the water, as is so common at sea, the ocean’s surface had changed. Where it had been quiescent, it in that brief time it had become roiled by perhaps some subterranean force, and the newly-generated waves swept the unsuspecting shark right up onto the beach itself. And deposited it right at our feet.

Without a word to each other, in spite of the seeming danger, Rona and I did not take one step backwards. Science, evolution, geology be damned! Being there for this shark’s crisis took us over and riveted us to this perfect place to witness its, we were certain, final those. And it would be a lesson from Nature about the dangers of greed and overreaching. Why not to allow one’s emotions and instincts to rule.

As we stood there looking down at the shark in apparent agony, out in deeper water, its mates gave up their gorging and one by one begin to leap from the water, spinning in the air as if to signal that they were there, as understanding witnesses, and as a sort of collective biological beacon, glinting in the remaining sunlight, and by so doing generated enough activity and reflective light to guide their avaricious comrade back to their protective embrace.

But as we peered down at the shark, now fully washed onto the land, ignoring the leaping and spinning of the others, it looked up at us and we exchanged a knowing, inter-species glance of understanding: we recognized its plight as a fellow creature and it seemed to knowingly remind us of our ancestral connection.

Sharks are the earliest of sea creatures, I had read, to have paired pectoral and pelvic fins, and, using these, this particular shark, our ancestral progenitor, worked its way further up onto the strand. I wondered if it had become so disoriented by what had happened to it that it was placing itself at further risk by waddling landward on its protean legs.

While I thus pondered, it looked once more in my direction and, I think with a version of a shark wink, using its four fins again, turned its body toward the ocean and fish-waddled back to where it belonged.

But where indeed, I thought, did it belong? For surely some many millennia ago one of its ancestors made a very different choice and here we all are.

“It’s getting late,” Rona said, pulling me back from my reveries. “We didn’t have any lunch today and I’m getting hungry.”

I knew there was no possibility that I could continue to hold her here. So I said, “Me too.” In fact, I had had enough for one day and was ready for a reason to leave.

“You know the other night we went to that wonderful Greek restaurant. Taverna Kyma I think it’s called. I had a delicious Greek fish, a Lavraki, that they grill on a wood fire. I could go for that again. What about you? You had one too and liked it.”

With a final look out to the ocean where the school of Spinners had retreated, I said, “Kyma’s OK with me, but tonight I think I’ll have the lamb kabob.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

March 28, 2008--Day Off

All is well. Just need to do some running around.

"Inner Fish" concludes on Monday.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 27, 2008--Snowbirding: My Inner Fish

If you require further evidence about the truth of Evolution, come to Florida in March when the Spinner Sharks are migrating.

Last Tuesday, waiting for the appearance of inspiration in my writing room from which I have an unimpeded view of the Atlantic, they were on full display. Tracking north, following their food supply—in this case I learned, Spanish Mackerel--vast schools of these ancient predators thrashed in a feeding frenzy that roiled the otherwise flaccid ocean.

It was clear even to an uninformed observer why they have earned their common name, “Spinner” (the Latin, Carcharhinus Brevipinna), as they frequently leapt fully from the ocean and as if thrilled to leave their natural home if only for a moment to spin joyously, glinting in sunlight. While overhead, ignoring them, circled scores of clamoring gulls and pelicans, both of which from great heights slammed headlong into the water to gather their share of whatever the ravenous sharks had left over.

Even before this riotous display I had been thinking about fish and even doing some reading about them. They are everywhere down here. Not just outside my window and not easy to ignore. There is their sport and commercial side. The Old Dixie Seafood Shop, for instance, just down the road is where fish boat captains bring their catch and the proprietors clean and display them in sparkling ice chests. There’s local Snapper and Red Mullet and Mahi Mahi. Swordfish from the Gulf Stream and whatever Tuna remains after the rest is snatched up by the Japanese fish buyers. The owner’s wife turns the occasional Wahoo into grillable steaks and whatever doesn’t get sold she transmutes into an incandescent salad flavored with just the right dash of celery-seed-suffused Old Bay. And then there are their specialties—Key-West style Conch Chowder and Smoked Marlin. They tell us that the Marlin spread is so popular that they sell 80 pounds of it a week. All from a tattered shack of a shop on an out-of-the-way stretch of, yes, the Old Dixie Highway.

But my reading takes me to very different places—to our deeper relationship to the fish. Well beyond all the local surfcasting, sport fishing, and the resulting pleasures of the kitchen and table.

I had known from just a dollop of poorly-taught high school biology, when they still unfettered taught Evolution in public schools, that an even more fantastic transmutation than that which is at work at the Old Dixie Market with the Wahoo is the evidence that humans are no more than evolved fish. Fish that on a day eons past wallowed up onto land and of those that survived in this dramatically new environment slowly passed along to us many of the physical characteristics that we too quickly see to be unique to our own species.

Our boney head and large brain case with our sense organs fastened on are vestiges of our fish origins. And the fact that we have two ears, two nostrils, and two eyes set ideally apart, all essential to our survival, creativity, and progress, are also descended from fish, which also carry their sense organs in pairs.

Our spines that allow us to walk upright are modified versions of fishes’ spiny innards. All it takes to make that point is to observe what a waiter sets quickly aside after he filets your broiled Pompano. It takes little imagination to see the relationship between a fish’s and our skeleton.

Fins became arms and legs; and our hinged jaw, tongue, and enameled teeth are as well gifts from the sea. Also fishes’ cranial nerves are not that far from our own. In fact, premeds who struggle to recognize, identify, and memorize their sequence begin by dissecting the skull or condocrania of Dogfish Sharks. If they do so successfully, as I pathetically attempted, they discover descending first the Olfactory, then the Optic, next the Oculomotor nerve, after that the Trochlear, the Trigeminal . . . and finally the Vegus. All remarkably similar to what one would discover first year in medical school. (Though I dropped out before then and cannot offer true testimony.)

More recent study of our distant cousins reveals that fish have many of the same social skills that make us, it appears, not-so-uniquely human. Most live in schools in large part so that they can be of help to each other, engaging routinely in acts of considerable fish-to-fish reciprocity.

African Cichlids typically live in groups of 10 or more and include a breeding pair and an assortment of helpers. Some defend their territory, others make sure the nests are cleaned, and still others do the hard work of oxygenating the breeding pair’s eggs. And remarkably, hear this human relatives, the so-called helper fish aren’t even biologically related to those they tend. They apparently do this thankless work so that they can benefit from the security against predators and the food supply made available by their collective behavior.

And fascinatingly some fish even experience menopause! To bad for them and why did they need to pass this too along to us? I like my three-dimensional vision, but . . .

Enough reading! I needed to move this research out into the real biological world so it could be tested. And so, during the Spinner Shark migration season, I took to the beach.

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26, 2008--The Clintons' Strategy: John McCain for President

In 1956, a young senator from Massachusetts attempted to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. John Kennedy failed, Stevenson lost in a landslide to Dwight Eisenhower, but four years later JFK successfully sought the presidential nomination and defeated Richard Nixon in a close election. Some say it was stolen for him by party bosses such as Richard Daley in Chicago.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. He was defeated in that quest, Ford lost to the unpopular Jimmy Carter in the general election, but four years later Reagan was the overwhelming nominee of his party and won an easy victory over the by by then ineffectual Carter.

George H. W. Bush in 1980 was Ronald Reagan’s chief rival for the presidential nomination, lost out, but was rewarded with the vice presidential nomination. He served for eight years in that position, was nominated himself for the presidency in 1988, and easily defeated the pathetic Michael Dukakis.

That same year, 1988, a young governor from a very small state toyed with the idea of seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination. But before the primary season really began he withdrew his candidacy, announcing that he would try again four years later (if his party’s nominee lost) or eight years later if by some chance Dukakis could manage to defeat Bush. We know what happened to him and we know that Bill Clinton won the 1992 nomination and was twice elected president.

Then this year's Republican nominee, John McCain, eight years ago was squashed in a bitter Karl Rovian primary campaign battle by George W. Bush. And if the Clintons this year, in the words of one of their senior supporters, succeed in "breaking Barack Obama's back" between now and the convention, who knows, we may see McCain ensconced in the White House come January.

So what lessons and insights might one take from this recent presidential history?

What jumps out most clearly is that about half the time it pays to lose the presidential nomination the first time you try for it because almost invariably you wind up with the nomination four or eight years later and then you get elected president! The real goal of all this striving.

Thus, if you are Hillary Clinton and your first attempt at the nomination is likely slipping away what would you do if you also read history this way?

It’s obvious—you come away from losing with your lifelong ambition to become president undiminished, you’re still relatively young, and you want to do a version of what Ronald Reagan and your own husband did—see the candidate of your own party who beat you out for the nomination lose, hope that John McCain turns out to be as ineffective as Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter, and then come roaring back four years from now and run an “I told-you-so” campaign, winning both the nomination and the presidency in 2012.

In science there's something called Ockham’s Razor. Named for the 14th Century logician Franciscan Friar William of Ockham, it states that any phenomenon should make or require as few assumptions as possible. In other words, the simplest solution or explanation is best.

If we apply this principle to the current struggle within the Democratic Party, Hillary and Bill Clinton doing all they appear to be doing to tear down Barack Obama so that John McCain will be elected (see NY Times article linked below), the simplest explanation for their otherwise reprehensible behavior is that it’s all about Hillary in 2012.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 25, 2008--Misspoke-ing

“So I misspoke,” Hilary Clinton said yesterday--no big deal--when the story she told on repeated occasions in recent weeks about her trip to Bosnia was exposed as considerably more than mere misspeaking.

We expect politicians and the rest of us on occasion to fib. Or, if you prefer to be euphemistic, "misspeak." To wiggle out of an embarrassing situation, to exaggerate slightly our importance, to show how assertive we were when asking for a raise.

But out-and-out lying about something of real significance, like how brave and intrepid you were in an extremely dangerous situation in order to show voters what a decisive and courageous commander-in-chief you would be, does not qualify as misspeaking.

By now the details of Senator Clinton’s lying, which have been dribbling out during the past few days, first in the blogisphere and now in the mainstream media, the actual facts about her trip are becoming well known and tell us a great deal about her character. (See linked NY Times article.)

As evidence that a picture is worth a thousand words, CBS broadcast, side-by-side, Senator Clinton last week again sharing the harrowing narrative of her landing in Tuzla and images of the actual landing ceremony at the airport. A landing that she dramatically said required her to be placed in and armored compartment of the C130 in which she was flying, had the plane taking evasive action as it approached the runway, and then she and her party having to dash across the runway “with my head down” to dodge the nearby sniper fire.

It was such a dangerous situation, she continued, that the traditional greeting ceremony on the tarmac needed to be cancelled.

But then on the split-screen we saw what really occurred. There was a large gathering of officials calmly awaiting her at the foot of the steps and even a 10 year-old girl there to give her flowers and read a poem she had written. All very charming and familiar. And all taking place calmly and clearly not with her or anyone else in danger.

As the story trickled out, the comedian Sinbad, who was a member of her party quipped, “The most dangerous thing about the trip was deciding where to have dinner.”

To which Senator Clinton dismissively replied, “Well, he’s a comedian.”

In fact when she repeated the story for the second or third time last week, she embellished it further--in a swaggering manner she told about how during her husband’s presidency the word around the West Wing was that when a place was too dangerous for the president to visit, they always said, “Send the First Lady.”

And we did see pictures of Hillary during her 82 trips overseas--riding elephants in India, observing dancers in Africa, and walking along the Great Wall in China. Almost always accompanied by Chelsea Clinton during school breaks. Including spring break in Bosnia because she was there at that allegedly-intrepid time along with Sinbad and Cheryl Crow.

Again Sinbad got it right: “If it was so dangerous would she have brought along her daughter plus a comedian and a singer?”

Hillary Clinton’s self-aggrandizing lie is so elaborate that to shrug it off as misspeaking doesn’t work. It is a desperate effort during a failing candidacy to underscore the extent and meaning of her “35 years of experience.” To show that she was more than just a bystander to history who made contributions to her husband’s presidency over dinner or via pillow talk. This is to underscore the assertion that theirs was a co-presidency and that qualifies her to be president now in her own right.

And just a day after the 4,000th U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq this failure to take responsibility for the truth about something so benign as a junket to the Balkans is a metaphoric version of not fessing up to the grievous strategic error she made in voting to "Authorize the Use of Military Force Against Iraq”--part of the title of the enabling legislation in the Senate.

She continues to refuse to acknowledge that she made a “mistake" and continues to claim that she she was duped by the Bush administration: In effect to say, "So I mis-voted."

Monday, March 24, 2008

March 24, 2008--Our "Mex"

Putting aside the political significance of Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Barack Obama—how many votes will it sway, how many Super Delegates will be tipped—is the harsh light it shines on both Clintons’ arrogance and increasingly less than subtle racism.

And how sad that is, considering that they have labored for a professional lifetime to support and develop programs to help the very likes of the Richardsons and Obamas.

After courting Richardson shamelessly—Bill Clinton even traveled all the way to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with him—once he endorsed Obama they and their surrogates quickly moved to diss him. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist and attack dog (or whatever he’s calling himself these days) played down the significance of the endorsement, saying that the time “when it could have been effective has long since passed.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

Translation: The only political value Richardson has is with Hispanic voters; and with the Latino-dominated primaries now over, he’s useless to us.

James Carville, of Clinton War Room fame, put it even more directly, calling it an “act of betrayal.” In his own words he said: “Mr. Richardson’s endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing . . . is ironic.”

What Carville forgot to mention is that Judas was also one of Christ’s disciples. And this gets closer to the heart of the matter:

The Clintons have always viewed Richardson, and other people of color they “elevated,” as belonging to them, as versions of disciples. Having derivative rather than independent qualities and value and thus being in lifetime thrall to them. It is only through association with us that you have been recognized and rewarded. You were nothing special until we acted affirmatively. And as such, you owe us.

This instrumental form of association calls for the lowest form of relating. And, in this case, also smacks of racism. In effect—Richardson is eternally expected to be their “Mex.”

And this is unfolding at the very time that we are being reminded of Bill Clinton’s “use” of Jessie Jackson and, yes, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright who were prominently among the ministers the then President turned to for “spiritual guidance” when he got nailed, sorry, in the Lewinsky affair.

Billy Graham wasn’t available so Bill Clinton turned to Jackson who was craving the spotlight and redemption since his own sexually misbehavior was also making headlines. When in trouble, the Clintons turn to people who they can remind would not be who they are or have the access they have if it weren’t for them.

Jackson, having provided this service, and having at the time been rewarded by uncommon association and visibility, was recently tossed aside during the South Carolina primary when Bill Clinton dealt the first of the race cards when he attempted invidiously to link Jessie Jackson with Barack Obama in the hope that this would scare away white voters.

This was patently al calculatedly about race because, if he wished, he could just as easily have noted that two other presidential aspirants won the SC primary but not their party’s nomination. Both of whom are white—Pat Buchanan and John Edwards. Clinton’s choice of his (White) House Black Jessie Jackson to make his point about Obama tells us all we need to know—he was not making an objective historical observation but a racist one.

And, I forgot--if Richardson is Judas who in the Clinton analogy is Jesus?

Friday, March 21, 2008

March 21, 2008--Starbucks: Not My Cup of Tea

I admit it--I'm a coffee snob and as such do not feel that what Starbucks calls coffee in any way resembles the real thing.

They've been hurting recently. Some say it's the faltering economy. Folks are less willing than in the past to pay $3.40 for a 12 ounce Mocca when they can do better at the local McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts, believe it or not, more and more Starbucks’ downscale competition. Others, including the new CEO, Howard Schultz, claim that when Starbucks over-globalized it no longer provided customer with an "authentic coffeehouse experience." (See NY Times article linked below.)

So for however millions a year he's being paid to turn the place around, he the other day announced enthusiastically that by 2010 each of the 15,000 Starbucks stores will install new and improved automated espresso-making machines. Machines that not only will make coffee one cup at a time (is there another way to make espresso?) but will have a low profile so that customers can see over them and thus have an unimpeded view of the baristas who make their Frappuccinos; at Thanksgiving time their Pumpkin Spice Lattes; and for the observant, Kosher Coffee Veronas (that is, according to the Orthodox Union, only if the coffee cup is covered).

A few things--first, what are “baristas”? In a world flooded with euphemisms designed to deflect the unpleasant and trick people into feeling good about themselves morticians and undertakers become funeral directors, toilets bathrooms, and coffee makers, I get it, become baristas. These are, according to Wikipedia, “Those who have acquired some level of expertise in the preparation of espresso-based coffee drinks”.

“Espresso-based coffee drinks”? This then helps me understand something else CEO Schultz mentioned—beginning in mid-April, users of the “customer card” will be able to customize their drinks, at no extra cost, with vanilla or soy milk. I have no idea what these customer cards are, but I do know that in the authentic-type coffeehouse Schultz wants to simulate, like say those in Vienna, no one, while puffing on a Gauloises or reading Der Standard, will be doing any such customizing.

I though am happy to learn that something else Starbucks is doing to reattract their declining latte customers sounds like progress, assuming there should be any notion of progress when it comes to coffee. Starting soon baristas will be making regular coffee in smaller batches. Now coffee will be allowed to sit in plastic urns for only 30 minutes rather than as at present for two hours!

If they could only stop serving espresso in paper cups (yes I know they recycle them), they might even get me to consider popping in when I’m desperate and there’s nothing more Viennese around.

And one more thing--to assure that authentic coffeehouse aroma, Starbucks will begin to phase out their heated-up breakfast sandwiches, whose own aroma so overwhelms the coffee’s that, aromatically-speaking, Starbucks was, there’s no other way to put it, starting to smell like a McDonald’s where the first thing you notice when you stumble into one at 7:00 am is the wafting fragrance of Egg McMuffins.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20, 2008--7.59 Billion Years

In 1833, in upstate New York, William Miller, a prosperous farmer and lay Baptist minister revealed that, from a close reading of the Bible, he calculated that at some time during 1843 Christ would return and that would launch a series of events leading to the End of Days. The Apocalypse, the end of the world, and the Last Judgment.

Religious fervor of this kind was so widespread and hot at that time and in that region of New York that it came to be called the Burned-Over District. A few years earlier, in much the same location, as further evidence that this was a religiously special place, Joseph Smith claimed that he found the golden tablets upon which the Book of Mormon was inscribed.

So it was no surprise that Miller attracted thousands of followers--Millerites they were called. There, elsewhere in America, and even in Europe. So devoted were they that when he narrowed his prediction to October 22nd or 23rd for the actual date for Christ's return, even though Jesus had failed to appear on a number of other dates Miller had identified, many gave up all their worldly possessions and moved to high ground so they could witness directly the impending celestial event.

Well, here we are 165 years later, and we’re still waiting.

But, thanks to modern science, we now have a more precise and reliable date—the world as we know it will end in 7.59 billion years.

Not that those who have identified this date are saying that this will be when the Miller-predicted Advent will occur, albeit a little behind schedule. No, scientists aren’t in the prophecy game. This, they have discerned, is when the earth will fall into the exploding sun and be incinerated. Our planet, their observations reveal, will be pulled from its orbit and plunge into the sun’s inferno.

Lest this lulls you into feeling that a date so far in the future leaves you with plenty of time to schedule your engagement party; ask your boss for a raise; finally have your apartment painted; or, in my case, make an appointment to have hearing aides fitted, think again. Because though the earth’s final destiny is to play out in that distant future, other things will happen sooner which will make life here much less pleasant. In fact intolerable. Actually, impossible.

That is because only one billion years from now, these same scientists say, our sun will be 10 percent brighter and hotter than it is at present and this will mean, among other catastrophic things, that our oceans will vaporize. Talk about Global Warming!

Not that it will matter to any of us after the Atlantic Ocean become in effect a lot of superheated steam, but those of you who remain curious in spite of that, 4.5 billion years after our oceans boil away, the sun will burn up its last hydrogen fuel and rapidly enter its final throes—our sun, like many others of its kind in the solar system, will become a Red Giant. (See linked “Science Times” article.)

This will turn out to be a good story for the planets out there beyond Neptune. Those frozen far away places will experience a relatively short-term springtime. Think, therefore, about Spring Break not in Fort Lauderdale but, say, on Pluto. It’s always good to plan ahead.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

March 19, 2008--For Barack Obama: "My Negro Problem"

Biologically, for six years I was an only child.

At the time, even what we now call the “working poor” could afford to have help in the house—a Cleaning Girl. My mother was no exception. It wasn’t that she was aspiring to being a fancy lady; it was more a practical necessity. She was an elementary school teacher and had a small child at home—me—who needed to be taken care of while she worked. Thus, because they were available and affordable, she hired help. Though there were a series of Cleaning Girls who came and went, none worked for her longer or more loyally than Bessie Cross.

Bessie was originally from South Carolina. Even I called her Bessie, while she addressed my mother as Miss Ray and me, I’m ashamed to admit, as Master Steven. Her parents had been the children of slaves and as a little girl she had worked in the cotton fields. My favorite stories were about her days as a field hand and how she picked cotton and filled up long, long bags, pulling them along between the rows of cotton plants. And how when a bag was full, she emptied it into a big container and received a quarter. This seemed like all the money in the world to me and picking cotton sounded like something that would be fun to do. While a lot of my friends on East 56th Street thought being a firemen would be even better, sliding down the brass pole, riding in the truck with the sirens going full blast, I still hoped one day to be able to go to South Carolina with Bessie and pick cotton.

In retrospect, I now know that the look on Bessie’s face when I shared these aspirations with her was of caring understanding. She loved me too much to want me to know about slavery or sharecropping or picking cotton for a quarter a hundred-weight in a stifling hot field in August in South Carolina. She knew that time itself would fill in those gaps in my awareness. And when that happened, it among other things, would signal the end to my childhood.

Then one day her son Henry arrived. He had been living with his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer just a block or two away from our apartment. But they were getting old and infirm and could no longer care for him so my parents offered to have him move in with us, sleeping on a small bed set up beside mine. He was two years older than I and knew so much more about the world, and most important was willing to share some of it with me. I was happy to think about him as a wiser older brother.

My parents took special pleasure from the reaction of others when we would, on rare occasions, eat out. When someone at a nearby table would stare more than was acceptable, even during those less tolerant times, my father would say, in a voice that filled the room, “This is Steven, my white son. And this is Henry, my black son.” That would quiet the place in an instant and allow us to eat in peace our Chicken Chow Mein, Pork Fried Rice, and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. These were the only times I ever saw Henry smile. His life had made him very, very serious. As it would mine.

Since there was no TV or other such distractions we spent most of our time in the street. And because we didn’t have very much, street games required pretty much what we had—nothing. Just a broom handle for Stickball (the sewers in the street or the rear wheels of cars served as home plate and the bases). A Spaldeen was enough to get a day-long Punch Ball game going and Johnny On The Pony required even less, just a wall to lean on and a fat kid, always Stanley Futoran, to serve as The Pillow, to cushion us as we came crashing down in a pile on top of each other. A used rubber shoe heel was a piece of equipment, all we needed to play, what else, Heels. And if we managed to find some marbles, we would dig a small hole in the dirt for the shim and could spend hours then playing Pot. And so on.

We were very inventive little creatures. In school we learned that Ben Franklin said that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I suppose we were being trained to be entrepreneurs, or just poor.

In the street games that required real skill, Henry was an asset and highly sought after. As we choose up sides, he was always the first to be selected. Especially for Punch or Stick Ball. Henry, when he connected, could punch a ball nearly two sewers. My specialty, in contrast, was slapping sharp, less than half-sewer grounders that when well executed eluded the fielders. This made us a good team, these complementary abilities, and a winning side usually included both of us.

After a three-hour series of Punch Ball games all of us, sweaty as we were, would gather on the stoop of one of our families’ houses and the mothers would bring out quarts of cold milk and home baked cookies (or, to me, just as good, Lorna Doones). Or, if we were really lucky, there would be ice cold bottles of Coca Cola and glasses of black cherry soda made fresh on the spot from thick pourings of Hoffman’s Syrup and Seltzer water squirted from a siphoned bottle. Pretty dreamy days, particularly if a soon-to-be pubescent sister would join us.

These days and years rolled into one long memory. We were all growing fast. Very fast—another of America’s promises was that the sons and daughters would turn out to be much, much taller than their immigrant parents; and mostly all of us were fulfilling that dream. A few, Heshy Perlmutter, especially, were not only growing taller by the hour but were even sprouting hair in unmentionable places and earning exotic street names such as Big Dick.

By then I had a younger brother and that meant there was no room any longer in our cramped apartment for Henry and that he needed to live with Bessie. Which he did. But he visited regularly and stayed over night frequently, particularly if East 56th Street was scheduled to engage in an inter-block Stickball competition on the weekend. Henry was our only hope of victory and thus was welcomed and secreted onto our team as a Ringer.

And while staying with us, in addition to the Stickball, he and I would visit his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer, now quite ancient. In fact, they looked as old to me as those Armenians who were frequently being pictured in National Geographic as the earth’s oldest living humans. They could have given them a run for their money, though they I am sure they never ate any yogurt. In fact, I don’t think they ever ate more than some rice wet with giblet gravy.

Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer lived in the basement bowels of the one apartment house in the neighborhood, among the coal bins and hot water boilers. The walls of their “rooms” were made from the cardboard sides of discarded refrigerator cartons hung on clothes lines strung between the basement columns. In turn for not having to pay rent (it was hard to imagine anyone paying rent for where they lived), they were required to haul up to the street the huge steel ash cans of cinders that were the residue from the building’s coal-fired burners. A job well beyond their capabilities, and thus Henry, with me as his assistant, did that for them. In turn, in what I now understand to be dialect, they would tell stories of their life in the rural South 50 years earlier. Stories that began to make picking cotton sound to me like anything but fun. Thus, as my neighborhood friends, I too began to think about becoming a fireman.

Those afternoons with Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer were among the happiest of my life. It is not just a gauzy memory of a simpler reality when I was much younger and full of hope and optimism, when anything felt possible and my body always did what I wanted it to. They were amazing, generous, and loving. Wise with years. And in spite of what they had seen and experienced, they were without anger or bitterness. They had become my aunt and uncle as much as Henry had become my parents’ son.

One Saturday, we managed to eek out a late-inning victory in the Stickball game with the hated team of Italians from around the corner. With Henry driving in the winning run with a two-and-a-half-sewer blast. We had never beaten them before so we were in the mood to celebrate back on 56th Street.

It was a hot day and we looked forward to cooling off at Melvin Shapiro’s house. With arms around each other we returned to our street in triumph, receiving the cheers and congratulations of our families who were sitting out on their stoops seeking to catch a cooling breeze.

Melvin went ahead to make sure everything was ready for us. The milk. The icy sodas. The cookies. But before we got there he came running back and pulled me aside. He needed to tell me something.

His parents said though it was OK for me to come over, because his 16 year old sister was at home, Henry wouldn't be allowed to join us. I thought I misunderstood; but when he repeated what he had been instructed to say, I then understood. And so did Henry.

I did not need to tell him. Without a glance, he turned and left.

* * *

Though I had thought often about Henry and attempted to find him—Bessie had moved back to South Carolina—as the months and years passed, I got distracted by school and friends and plans and in truth he drifted away from these thoughts and even from my memories. Then one day, it was right before Mothers Day, I was in another part of Brooklyn and stopped at a Barton’s Candy shop to buy some chocolates. Behind the counter was a Negro man. When he looked up and we recognized each other, before I could even say "Henry," he disappeared into the back and, though I lingered, did not return.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 18, 2008--The Blind Hand At Citibank

During the same week that Bear Stearns bit the dust, seeing the value of its stock evaporate, with Lehman Brothers seemingly not far behind, and the Federal Reserve jumping in to bail them out and lowering interest rates to almost zero percent, over at Citibank, which because of the same kinds of shoddy practices is more and more owned by oil sheiks, at least one person is happy.

Vikram Pandit is the Citigrouper grinning from ear to ear because even before taking the reins as CEO of the tottering bank he pocketed $216 million.

Almost Alex Rodriquez money, but A Rod a least has to put in ten years of work and hit more home runs than Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds before he pockets all of the money. Not true for Mr. Pandit.

He received $165.2 million as the result of Citigroup’s purchasing his former company as a way of luring him away, an additional $2.7 mil for the six months he served as head of Citigroup’s investment bank, and to top it all off was given a version of a signing-bonus of $48 million. If my arithmetic is correct, that totals a cool $216, give or take a hundred thou or so.

All this from a bank which saw its shares by 47 percent and needed to write off at least $20 billion in bad debts. But in spite of this, to them Pandit’s up-front money is chump change.

Ever sensitive to how this might look to the public, especially Citi shareholders and employees who have seen the value of their pensions plunge, Citigroup buried the details of its deal with Vikram Pandit in the fine print of a recent proxy statement.

Also not discussed was the leadership role Robert Rubin played in the effective undermining of Citibank’s value and standing in the banking community through a series of deeply flawed investment moves. The same Bob Rubin who has been given credit for the economic prosperity during the Clinton administration, the same Bob Rubin who has collected at least $200 million from Citigroup because of his board work, while more and more hiding from public view as his aura of omniscience evaporated. In the meantime, he didn’t turn back any of the money he received. (See NY Times article linked below.)

And here I all along naively thought that corporate America operated according to capitalistic principles—you are rewarded or punished because of what you place at risk. You venture capital, put in time and effort, and if your business is successful you cash in. If it doesn’t, you lose your investment.

What did Citigroup ask Mr. Pundit to place at risk? Or Robert Rubin, for that matter?

I’m shocked. This sounds more like socialism to me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17, 2008--Snowbirding: "What'dya Say?"

My mother, who lives in Lauderhill, broke one of her hearing aides. She’s nearly 100; and though in nearly perfect shape, whenever anything goes wrong, she gets upset. When something as vital as a hearing aide needs repairing, her upset is palpable; and those of us nearby who are devoted to helping to take care of her, leap into action.

To get the hearing aide fixed fell to me.

Ordinarily, getting something repaired for her in not much of a problem. She needs a grab bar installed in her shower—no big deal: call the handyman at her place and one-two-three it gets done. Her washing machine's hot water hose springs a leak—no big deal: call the company with which she has a service contract and one-two-three she has a new hose installed by the end of the day.

But for me, helping with her hearing aide is a big deal. And it’s all personal.

My problem with this began with my father. Like his mother and all his siblings, at about age 70 he began to manifest signs of a serious hearing loss. When we would visit my parents in Florida and watch TV with him, we noticed that between visits he had turned the volume up more and more to the point where it was painful to watch the six o’clock news with him. Not just because we would get into political arguments, but also because the sound itself booming from the set was so loud that it caused migraine headaches.

When I would point this out to him he would vehemently, and at full vocal volume, deny anything was wrong with his hearing or that there had been further deterioration since the last time we saw him. You can only imagine his reaction when we began, quite gently and tentatively, to suggest that it might be a good idea to have his hearing tested.

“I HEAR PERFECTLY WELL. THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY HEARING. MAYBE A LITTLE EARWAX. NOTHING MORE THAN THAT.” To protect my own hearing I would as subtly as possible slip my fingers in my own ears, knowing that in spite of this that I would have no problem hearing him—he was still coming through loud and clear.

Later, he began to speak in what seemed like non-sequiturs. We would be having a version of a conversation about, say, the arrest and trial of Manuel Noriega, the drug-dealing dictator of Panama; and just as I was concluding what I thought would be a devastating point about how the first President Bush was using his capture and prosecution to prove to the world that he and the United States were not to be pushed around, that we still carried a Big Stick, my father would blurt out, “THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL IN THE WORLD IS RELIGION. TELL ME ONE WAR THAT WASN’T STARTED BECAUSE OF RELIGION. AND FURTHERMORE WHO WAS ALWAYS IN CHARGE? I’LL TELL YOU—MEN. THAT’S WHO.”

Not that these were not good and perhaps valid points, but until we figured out that he engaged us this way—seemingly without any awareness of the context of what anyone was saying—he did this not because he had an emerging case of Alzheimer’s, but rather because he couldn’t hear a word that anyone was saying. And that since he was, in spite of this, eager to participate, he would say whatever might be on his mind.

So, the evidence was clear from the TV volume and the seeming non-seguiturs that he would soon be deaf as a stone, and unless he would somehow manage to agree to get hearing aides we would effectively lose him.

I say “manage to agree” because he was a very stubborn man and if he said he didn’t need hearing aides—even though he couldn’t hear himself say that—there would be no way to convince him to be tested much less fitted for them. And, since he was as vain as any man you can imagine, the thought to him, we knew, that he would be seen wearing these devices, even though they could be made so tiny as to be virtually invisible, was anathema. Forget that he had lost most of his hair, forget that he had a big, rather unattractive indentation in his skull from a cranial operation to drain a subdural hematoma—he still thought hearing aides would make him look like an OLD MAN.

We countered with what we thought would be a winning argument—“How do you think you look when you can’t hear what anyone is saying? Actually, shouting at you. And how do you think you look when you’re in a restaurant and you have to speak at the top of your lungs when trying to hear yourself speak?”

To which he would respond, “WHAT’DYA SAY?”

End of discussion. End of the likelihood that he would agree to have his hearing tested.

But we had one more thing to try. We rolled out our secret weapon.

For whatever inexplicable reason, he had a “special relationship” with Rona. She could at times get through to him and persuade him, if not to do something he was adamantly opposed to doing, to at least try something new. “For me,” she would say. “Why not give it a try.” And when she in private spoke this way with him about his hearing, he emerged from the den with her and an appointment to have his ears tested.

Of course no one reacted to this or ever talked about it. His decision went totally unacknowledged to prevent him from going back on his promise to Rona. We knew how to work around his pride.

So one day, at the appointed time, he disappeared and drove himself over to the Audiologist. He returned, without comment, two hours later with a prescription for hearing aides. Which he promptly filled. They came with the guarantee that he could try them, risk free, for 30 days, and if at that time he wanted to return them he could and would not be charged. This was a perfect way to, as Rona put it, at least “try them.”

Which he did. And as a result, he returned to us and was gleeful that he could join in, and dominate, every subsequent discussion about Manuel Noriega. Who by then was on trial in Miami.

From this experience I came away traumatized about anything having to do with hearing, hearing tests, and, heaven forbid, hearing aides.

In spite of this, when recently my mother needed to be in the hospital and was thus not able on her own to get her hearing aide repaired, I was the most likely candidate to take on the assignment.

But my father had made me so phobic about them that when she handed hers to me it felt as if it were on fire. A hot emotional coal, which I promptly dropped into one of the crevices of her hospital bed. The fifteen minutes it took to find it and then extract it without further damage from the bed’s mechanism didn’t make dealing with it any easier.

After I recovered it and quickly passed it to Rona for safe keeping, and frankly so I wouldn’t have to touch it again, my mother directed me to take it to the place where she had been fitted since she had insurance that would pay for at least some of the repairs, which she anticipated would be quite expensive, considering she had spent thousands of dollars to have them fitted and fabricated. But when we went to her apartment to get the policy we discovered that it had expired two years ago. We knew this would upset my mother since she had enough on her mind and thus decided not to bring it to her attention and to pay for the repairs ourselves. This also freed us from having to drive 30 miles each way to her person and, after the work was completed two weeks later, make another lengthy round trip burning up time and nearly-four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. If we were going to assume the cost why not make it easier on ourselves and find a place close by right here in Delray Beach?

* * *

Maple’s Hearing Aide Center is located close by us on Linton Avenue. If a place that deals with such things can ever be described as charming this one is it. The Center is housed in a 1930s bungalow which somehow managed to survive numerous hurricanes while fending off plans for its demolition and replacement by yet another gated community. We heard about Maple’s from a Green Owl regular who, ironically, had his own mother’s hearing aides repaired there. Especially down here the world is very small.

He was kind enough to drive us over and introduce us to the eponymous owner, David Maple, a distinguished and charming 40 to 45 year-old. Someone who is the epitome of a blessed person who will never age beyond his prematurely gray hair much less require the use of any of his own devices. Something I used to say about myself.

But here I was, hearing aide in hand. David Maple took it from me, gave it a quick look and, with it, retreated into what had formerly been a back bedroom. We heard him humming while he presumably was checking the extent of the damage, where to send it out for repairs, and of course, which would explain the humming, how much it was going to set me back. Though my own hearing is far from perfect, I thought I heard the sounds of his fingers too eagerly dancing over an adding machine keyboard.

He emerged in less than five minutes and smilingly handed the wounded hearing aide back to me. I heard it whistling.

“How come it’s whistling?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that mean that it’s somehow . . . working?”

“Well, it is,” he said. “All it needed was a new door. Where the battery goes. I happened to have one back there. A new door. I simply popped it in and it’s fixed.”

“Fixed? When I spoke with the person who made them for my mom, she told me it would take at least two weeks to get the work done.” I was bowled over and frankly suspicious. Maybe he had just Scotch taped the old door into place; and after charging us an arm and a leg, it would fall off again from the jostling of the car even before we got to our place. Though we’ve been here for two months now, I still retain much of my New York snowbird skepticism.

“Actually,” he said, ignoring my attitude, “it was quite simple. Pop off the old broken one and pop on the new one. Take a look. It’s all done.”

I was about to say something that could easily have been misinterpreted and Rona, sensing that, jabbed me in the ribs. As she has frequently needed to do whenever someone is uncommonly, to me suspiciously, nice or accommodating. My antenna is always set to high alert.

“What did you say?” I asked David Maple. “Sorry. But my hearing’s not as good as it used to be.” I chuckled, “Actually,” quickly correcting myself, I instead said, “There’s really nothing wrong with my hearing, per se. All I need is to clean out some earwax. I accumulate quite a lot of that.”

“I can take care of that for you if you’d like,” Maple boyishly smiled back at me; and from his jacket pocket extracted an ear probe, the pointy thing that fits into your ear and has a light built in so they can look at your inner ear. And before I could object, he had me bending over and stuck the thing into my left ear. “No, nothing there.”

“You mean I don’t have any wax?”

“Nothing that I can see. But let me check the other one,” my good ear I should add, “Maybe that’s the one causing you the problem. I can clean it right out for . . . Except that one too’s clean as a whistle.”

There went my decade-long explanation of my hearing loss. Which meant . . .

“Do you also do hearing tests?” Rona chimed in. It was now my turn to jab her in her ribs.

“Sure. Right back there.” He pointed to the other former bedroom.

I needed to find a way to wiggle out of what was becoming for me an increasingly complicated situation. Desperate and inspired I said, “You know I should make an appointment to come in to get tested.” We were heading north in a few weeks and knowing how busy fellows like David Maple were I knew the next available appointment would be well after I was safely reensconced in New York.

“As a matter of fact” he now was chirping, “I can do it right now.” I felt myself growing faint. “That is, if you have the time.”

“Well, we do have some chores to do,” I managed to say while gasping for air, I was that traumatized on the subject. “I don’t mind at all,” I lied, “coming back at another time.” But I realized that ploy wasn’t going to work since Rona, having heard that sort of thing from me many times in the past, had already pushed and leveraged me halfway to the testing room.

And before I knew it I was seated next to a table upon which the testing machine sat. It looked more like a World War II code breaking machine, with its antiquated black dials and gauges, than the high-tech torture device that I had been anticipating. And the earphones of the same vintage didn’t help allay my fears of Nazi scientific experiments.

“All you need to do,” he said, “is raise your hand every time you hear the tone. They will progress from louder to softer. It’s very simple. That way I’ll be able to get a picture of your hearing.” I liked that—he could have said “a picture of how deaf you are.” And so I relaxed, or, more honestly, submitted to the inevitable. I had no choice. Maybe I’d manage to do well, considering my ears were clear of wax.

I was happy to notice that he began testing my good ear—it would give me the opportunity to impress him; and sure enough I heard the first few tones loud and clear. And every time I did shot my hand up into the air as I had done in fourth grade to impress Mrs. Gildersleeve.

But after that first burst of euphoria I sat there in increasingly numbing silence, no longer hearing any tones; and with enough time passing I couldn’t pretend there was something wrong with the infernal machine. There was no denying that he must be sending tones my way which I was not hearing. Thus, though the room was warm from lack of air conditioning, I began to shiver and sweat.

After a few minutes I began to hear beeps in my other ear. He had obviously given up on the first one; and even sooner than with the good one, this time silence descended on me almost immediately. I struggled with the earphones, which felt as if they were imbedded in my skull, thinking they must be defective from decrepitude. And glancing over at the machine I assumed it too must have become disabled from age and over use.

He caught my eye and, as if responding to my worried look, jumped up from his chair. Chipper as ever, he clapped his hands and said, “We’re done.” He held the chart he had been writing on pressed close to his chest. From that alone I knew the news certainly was not going to be good. His excessive cheeriness is something I had learned from other doctors was always put on to mask bad test results or news of an incurable illness.

“Let’s go back outside so your wife can hear the results.” He emphasized the “hear” as, I felt, a way to rub in the sad news of my circumstances.

Before I could catch up with him, he was already back in what had been the bungalow’s living room. Rona was seated there reading brochures about hearing aides. Doing a little advanced research, I thought, about my inevitable needs, assuming there were even devices powerful enough to deal with my condition.

“Take a look at this,” he was talking with Rona, ignoring me as if I were merely the source of the interesting data, though I could still hear well enough to make out what he was saying. “This chart that I made, your husband’s Audiometric Evaluation, shows you everything you need to know about his hearing.” I looked over his shoulder to get a glance at what looked like the right side of a Bell Curve. Just the right side in which the curve began at the apex and then descended so rapidly that it quickly dropped right off the chart. I was trembling so much that I needed to find a chair into which to collapse.

He then finally turned to me. I leaned forward and squinted, certain I would need to read his lips. “It’s not what you’re thinking.” I resumed my breathing. “You have what we in the business call Rock and Roll Hearing.”

“What?” I gasped.

“You must have listened to a lot of loud music when you were younger.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m older than you think. I listened to mainly to Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. All their music was pretty soft. It wouldn’t have made me . . . as deaf as I guess I must be.” I pointed at his graph.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said reassuringly, “You’re not as hard of hearing as you think.” I continued to point at the chart. “You do have a hearing loss. That’s true. Especially in the higher frequencies. So when you listen to music you probably don’t hear the violins very well.”

I acknowledged that that was true. I would give him that much. “Anything else?” I asked. “I can live with that.”

“That’s true. It’s not fatal.” He laughed at his own joke. “But there is one more thing.”

“Yes?” I said tentatively, thinking also maybe my problem would lead in time, if not immediately, to something more serious than trouble with violins.

“I listened carefully to your wife’s voice.” He saw that I was puzzled. “The tones that make up her voice are largely in the ranges where you have your hearing loses.”

“And?” I still was not getting it.

“That means you may have trouble hearing what she has to say to you.”

“This confirms what I've been saying for years.” It was Rona, and I had no difficulty whatsoever hearing her.

I had no choice then but to ask, “So, what do I . . . I mean what do I . . . I mean . . .

“Well, these hearing aides I was reading about,” it was Rona again, “it sounds as if they could help you to hear those violins he was talking about. And also to hear me.”

There was still a way out of this for me. So I said, “If I agreed to have hearing aides made how long would it take.” Adding before he could answer, “I know you have to make molds, have them fabricated, then there is the fitting.” I remembered this sequence of things from both my father and mother. It would take months and we were remaining in Delray for just weeks.

“In your case, and for the devices Rona has correctly identified as best for you,” she smiled back at him, “it would take . . . let me think . . . maybe two days.”

Days?” I shrieked. “I thought my mother’s took . . . ”

“For her type, you’re right, all together it would be at least two months. But for these, as I said, no more than two days. So what do you think?”

Rona was nodding her head enthusiastically.

But I had my opening, “Since it takes such a short time, let me think about it for a few days. We have plenty of time for that.” Hoping it would all be forgotten by then. Lost in thoughts about the beach and air and all the other wonderful things we have been experiencing.

David Maple, though, had me. “Here’s the deal—I can get them for you as I said in a day or two, and you can wear them for up to 30 days. If they don’t work for you, bring them back and they cost you nothing.”

Rona’s smile was now capable of competing with the South Florida sun.

With difficulty I raised myself from the chair. “I still need a day to think about this.” Rona was nodding agreement knowing how difficult this was for me—being potentially transformed by hearing aides into and instant Old Man.

Back on my feet, I asked, “So how much do we owe you for fixing my mother’s hearing aide? And of course for the test?”

“Let me see,” he said, scratching his chin. “That’ll be five.”

“Five what?” I asked.

“Dollars,” he said.

“Can’t we pay you more than that? I mean, you even included a new battery for the hearing aide. And gave me the test.”

“No, that’s it.” He set aside my offer with a friendly wave.

He was grinning now. “But when you come back in a day or two, don’t worry, it’ll cost you plenty.”

With that we left but could still hear him laughing to himself as we got into our car.

Friday, March 14, 2008

March 14, 2008--Fanaticism XCXIII: The 14 Deadly Sins

I worry, if he were still alive, what the visionary Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch would do with the Vatican’s new additions to its list of Mortal Sins.

Recall his magnificent, hallucinogenic painting, The Seven Deadly Sins. The torment and horror he represented was magnificent when he had only the original seven by which to be inspired—the wonderful lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

Now he would have to figure out how to represent “genetic modification,” “carrying out experiments on humans,” “polluting the environment,” “causing social injustice,” “causing poverty,” “becoming obscenely wealthy,” and “taking drugs.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

All very contemporary and up-to-date, but lacking the force and poetry of the original transgressions. They, thus, will present considerable challenges for poets and artists who want to incorporate them into their work.

Be that as it may, art as have known it at its best has been so trivialized and commodified that no artists today would consider dealing with sin as subject matter when they can get into the Whitney Biennial, as one just did, by creating an installation in which they fill a gallery space with teapots that have lava lamps stuffed into their tops. Though, come to think of it, this work might qualify as a manifestation of “polluting the environment.”

But what about these latest seven themselves, which, like the earlier ones, threaten one’s immortal soul with eternal damnation unless absolved before death through confession or penitence?

What is so different about the sin of “becoming obscenely wealthy” and the starker “greed”? I myself prefer single-word sins. Among other things they are easier to remember and incorporate in stain-glass windows.

And why should anyone be condemned to a Boschian hell if one’s “experiment on humans” includes perfecting better ways to transplant organs or check the safety of life-saving new medications? I know, the Vatican is really talking about things like human cloning and perhaps in vitro fertilization. But if they were to make a detailed list of forbidden human experiments it would run on for pages and have to be updated every year.

“Taking drugs” I also assume is intentionally not specific but means . . . . Well, what does it mean? No heroin of course and I am certain no crack. OK, though I don’t see using either of these as being quite the equivalent of lust or gluttony. What then about marijuana? Maybe some time in Limbo would do for pot smokers. But then didn’t the Vatican recently eliminate Limbo as one of the three places where we go after death? I guess this then might mean that crackheads would go directly to Hell while those who only enjoy an occasional joint will be sent to Purgatory. If so, what are the implications for those of us who love our (non-sacramental) wine and booze? And what about cigarettes? I assume other Vatican documents will be released to straighten this complicated stuff.

And though I do like the new sins that focus on the causes of poverty and the need to care for the environment, I do wonder why “sins” such as bigotry, deceit, corruption, betrayal, and pedophilia didn’t make the list.

All right, strike pedophilia. Boys still will be boys and they, like girls, like to have fun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008--Day Off

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 12, 2008--Really Ready On Day One

Here's the kind of experience I want in my Commander-in-Chief:

Someone who at age 29 parachuted behind enemy lines so that she could serve as a courier between allied and French resistance forces. Her two suitcases landed in a lake but she soon located her fiancé who had recently escaped from a German prison camp.

She then took command of 3,000 troops and they in turn were responsible for killing more than 1,000 German soldiers and capturing another 18,000.

Her unit then went on to interdict a rail line that supplied Nazi troops in Normandy. They did that 800 times during the month of June 1944, the month of D-Day; and, as if that weren't enough, her forces regularly attacked German truck and tank convoys.

She covered up her movements by carrying a case of cosmetics so she could pose as a traveling saleswoman.

At that time her name was Pearl Witherington. British by birth she grew up in France. Her nom de guerre was Pauline and her code name was, aptly, Wrestler.

If you ask me the kind of person I want in the White House answering the phone at 3:00 am, it's the Wrestler.

I just learned about Ms. Witherington because she died a couple of weeks ago at age 93. (See NY Times obit linked below.)

Our candidates, in the meantime, are behaving as if they are mud wrestlers.

March 11, 2008--While We Were Distracted . . .

While the media have been monomaniacally focused on how Florida and Michigan might reschedule their primaries, a few other things have been going on in the world.

In Iraq, where we have been told that the purpose of The Surge is not so much military as it is to give the Iraqis the time and protection they need to provide for their own security and work out political solutions, the centerpiece of that political agenda, to cobble together a deal for power sharing among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, has quietly fallen apart.

Less than a month ago, the Bush administration and John McCain heralded a new law passed by the Iraqi legislation as a breakthrough for ethnic reconciliation. “You see,” they said, “here is evidence that the surge is working. Just as we promised, by increasing the number of U.S. troops there, the Iraqi people are working out solutions to their own problems.”

But just as the law was to take effect it was vetoed by the three-member Presidential Council because the Shiite-dominated Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council saw it as taking too much power away from them. The passage of the legislation and all the posturing about it was front-page news, but its collapse was buried well below the fold on newspapers’ inner pages. And hardly mentioned on any of the cable so-called news channels. (See linked NY Times article linked below as an example.)

Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan . . . Hardly mentioned in the press is the news that they are about to harvest a bumper crop of opium and that the billions of dollars that will be generated from its illegal sale will continue to fund the resurgent Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorists who they support and shelter. Is it any wonder that NATO, which has from the beginning been a legitimate partner of the United States in the liberation of Afghanistan, see its member countries, one-by-one, withdrawing their forces.

We did of course hear much about Prince Harry’s service there and his reluctant withdrawal from combat. (There must have been nothing about Britney Spears for MSNBC and Fox to report and OJ’s trial in Las Vegas is still months away.) But we heard almost nothing about President Hamid Karzai’s slipping fortunes and the dire consequences of the gathering chaos. It was Prince Harry 24/7.

And then there is our “ally” Pakistan. Lots been happening over there. To be truthful, we did hear a good deal about Benazir Bhutto’s murder. How could we not since there was all that great video which could be played over and over again in slower and slower motion.

But why haven’t we been paying more attention to the recent parliamentary elections? The one in which our $10-billion-a year partner, President Pervez Musharraf got trounced. In that Islamic country that George Bush couldn’t locate on the map but that has nukes and missiles.

We didn’t hear much about how, in spite of this election results, Bush and Condi Rice (McCain’s potential vice president) have been pressuring the Afghani Parliament to nonetheless stand by our man. As you might imagine, this is not endearing us to opposition party leaders (most of whom are moderates) who are now calling into question Pakistan’s close, special relationship with the U.S.

But I do understand why the media prefer to cover the tempest over Michigan and Florida. Their ratings go up when they do and no one wants to be bummed out by being reminded of all the bad things going on on the other side of the world. The Dow Jones numbers are enough of a downer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

March 10, 2008--Too Hip By Half?

We know that a lot of politics is cultural. And that there may be an echo of the Culture Wars of the 1990s reverberating in the current battle for the Democratic nomination. As reductionist it may be to think in these terms, these old fights may still be found in the struggle under way between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, with each of them representing opposite sides of that divide and both benefiting and paying the price for how they appear and for what they represent. Including subliminally.

If this is in any way true, it may help explain why Obama has done well in the new Virginia and Hillary in hardscrabble places such as Ohio. And since the next big battleground is Pennsylvania, a state demographically quite similar to Ohio, for Obama to do well there he may have to make some mid-course cultural adjustments in order to connect with voters there.

It remains a mystery to me why Hillary seems to do better with blue-collar voters and so-called Reagan Democrats; but, there is no denying it, she does. Though she comes from an upper-middle-class world and has become in her own way a Fancy Lady with multi-million dollar homes in Georgetown and Westchester County, and has the casual capacity to loan herself $5.0 million, still there is something about her that appeals to working-class, disenfranchised-feeling white people. Perhaps there is a residue of good will toward her husband, though the reasons for that too are a mystery to me, that wafts over her. Perhaps people identify with the fact that she has figuratively been beaten up and beaten down a lot. Just like the way they feel about themselves.

We could struggle all day to figure out the nuances, but—bottom line—Obama has to figure out how better to connect with these crucial voters.

I am coming to feel that the very same things that make him appealing to the so-called latte-set—his youthfulness, urbanity, wryness, cleverness, articulateness, elegance, optimistic sparkle, even the way he dresses, turns almost as many people off as on. He benefits in places where there is a highly-educated, affluent, culturally progressive electorate, but does much less well where people perceive themselves as culturally dispossessed and unfairly treated.

I’m the last one to feel qualified to offer him advice about what to do, but one suggestion would be to back off a bit from his magnificent speeches and add to his mega rallies more intimate, high-touch events. I think he also should let people know more about his biography. He looks fancier than Hillary though the truth of his life is a story very different than hers. He told it well in his autobiography, but a lot of the folks he’ll be meeting in Pennsylvania the next six weeks probably haven’t read it. And if they get to know him this way might find that they share more common ground with him than with the Clintons.

Friday, March 07, 2008

March 7, 2008--Fanaticism XCXII: Shoot-Out at ASU

The closest thing down here to a New York City Chinatown Chinese restaurant is Silver Pond. It’s in a small mall on Local Route 7, sandwiched between Huey’s Sports Bar and the Hawkeye’s Gun Shop.

To tell you the truth, I don’t have that much interest in Huey’s, except maybe marginally when they advertise a wet-tee-shirt contest. But the gun shop fascinates me.

We’ve been going to Silver Pond for years when visiting my mother since it’s only about 10 minutes away from her—around-the-corner in Florida terms. But it wasn’t until recently, though often tempted, that I slinked into Hawkeye’s.

It’s a heck of a place. Not only do they have your basic hunting gear and target pistols but also what I assume are what folks-in-the-know call your semi-automatic weapons. To my untrained eye it looks like a Broward National Guard unit about to be sent back to Iraq could pop into Hawkeye’s and outfit themselves with whatever they need to fight against Al-Quaeda in Iraq. Including all the ammo they need and, if things really get ugly there, enough knives and karate weapons to take on a battalion of Kung Fu fighters if they ever show up among the terrorists. What the salesman told me are sais, kamas, nunchaku, and tonfa. Or whatever.

At Hawkeye’s they can help you get gun licenses as well as permits to carry concealed weapons. All pretty easy in Florida. And they also have a shooting range right there where you can get in some basic training. Through a plate glass window you can watch the guys, and an occasional woman, using their automatic weapons to fire at paper targets that have images of swarthy, intruder-type men with five-o’clock shadows printed on them.

The pistol range shares a wall with the Silver Pond so while you’re downing you beef chow fun you can hear the muffled but nonetheless recognizable sound of all the fun action next door.

So it came as some surprise to me, when just the other day buying tickets to the upcoming SONY-Ericcson tennis tournament on Key Biscayne, to see, printed on the ticket, that spectators are not allowed to bring alcoholic beverages with them—you of course can buy all you want there—but also that ticket holders are also not allowed to bring any weapons, “regardless of whatever permits you my have.” I guess that means there won’t be any of the Hawkeye’s crowd at the men’s semis.

But out in Arizona, if State Senator Karen S. Johnson has her way, you will be able to bring your concealed weapons with you to class at Arizona State University and all the other public colleges and universities in John McCain’s adopted state.

According to a report in the New York Times (linked below) the good senator claims that the massacres at Virginia Tech and recently at Northern Illinois University could have been prevented or limited if only students and even professors there had been armed to the teeth. Since it takes police a long time to get to campus, while waiting for them to arrive, whenever a deranged person starts blasting away in the library or cafeteria, students and staff would be able to take matters into their own hands.

Just to show you how serious and committed Senator Johnson is to her cause, before being persuaded otherwise, the bill she introduced also would have covered all public schools, including kindergarten classes!

Now I don’t know about you, but there’s no way when I went to college that I would have wanted Lionel Trilling packing a gun. That wouldn’t have made me feel safer. He was great at explicating Kafka, but handling a six-shooter? I’m, not sure about that.

And I don’t know about your kindergarten class; but if my teacher, Mrs. Borrell, had been armed I would have dropped out before the first grade. She had trouble erasing the blackboard so I can only imagine what she would have done with a 9 mm Glock 17 semi-automatic with a magazine of 17 rounds--which, by the way is on sale right now at Hawkeye’s.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

March 6, 2008--Snowbirding: Who's Here

Cousin Esther, who now lives in Boca Raton after years on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, enjoys life here; but she also misses some aspects of living in New York. Sort of like us while Snowbirding in Delray Beach.

She knows that when we are in the City, we have coffee every morning at Balthazar in Soho. It remains a trendy place though for us it has slipped imperceptibly into our Big Apple routine. When there, to tell you the truth, we hardly any more notice who might be sitting across from us since we’re more involved with the coffee itself and the talk among those few of us who remain as “regulars” years after the neighborhood changed and most of the artists moved out and the hedge-fund guys and the boutiques moved in.

But Esther still wants to know who we encountered there since the last time we had dinner together at Veri Amici nearly a year ago.

Trying to remember, I finally manage to dredge up a few names and reported that K. D. Lang was there just before we headed south. And Rona added, Daniel Day Lewis. I remembered Salman Rushdie and Kate Hudson. And Rona mentioned Jon Stewart and Alan Rickman. I chimed in with Meg Ryan and Alan Rickman.

“Enough,” Esther said, “I just wanted to be reminded of what I’m missing. Though, to tell you the truth, not that much!”

“And, oh yes,” I was on a roll and couldn’t restrain myself, “there were Uma Thurman and Yoko Ono.”

“Oh Yoko,” Esther said, “She’s a good one to see. How did she look?”

“Short,” Rona said, “Very short.”

“So you must miss Balthazar. Being here, I mean. I’ll bet you’ll never see Daniel Day Lewis in the Green Owl.”

I admitted that that’s unlikely and so Esther asked if we missed our life in New York.

“Just last night, for only a few minutes,” Rona said, “I had thoughts about New York and what I was missing. Seeing our friends of course; but you know, not much else. I am surprised, in fact, how little I miss the place. I was worried that after two weeks here I’d be bored and itching to get back. But it’s almost two months now and I feel we’ve just begun to scratch the surface in getting to know the area. We keep finding unexpected things. This may sound silly, but I’ve never had better tomatoes than the ones we found at the Woolbright Farmers Market. They may not be the meaning of life, but they will do until a better answer comes along.” And she quickly added, “I’m of course speaking metaphorically. I wouldn’t want you to think something like tomatoes have become that important to me. . . . Though they are remarkable.”

Esther looked over at her questioningly and Rona said, “I’m only half kidding.”

“But what about you, Steven, it can’t all be about tomatoes for you.” She winked at Rona.

“Well, I do love them and all the other fresh, good things we’ve ferreted out. From the earth and sea. When you’re living right by the ocean these kinds of natural things begin to mean a lot to you.”

“I understand,” Esther said.

“But you know, you asked about who we had seen recently at Balth. And though I can’t deny it’s fun to run into Jon Stewart and to give him a bit of a hard time about his performance at the Academy Awards, we’ve also been meeting and getting to know quite a few interesting people at the Owl and elsewhere.”

“Give me some examples,” Esther asked. She knows that Rona and I are solitary by nature, not very gregarious, and she was therefore justifiably skeptical about the “quite a few” part of what I said. So Rona and I gave her a quick list:

Jack is the first person we met. He’s from North Carolina and is retired. He was an executive with a furniture manufacturer and drifted to Florida to help take care of his parents when they began to fail. He’s full of spit and vinegar and talks a blue streak. So much so that the staff at the Owl always threaten to charge him rent for his seat at the counter. He’ll talk about anything that interests you, but especially about what interests him. Golf more than anything else is his favorite subject. He’s travels the world to play all the great courses and just yesterday told us about playing with his late friend, tennis great Arthur Ashe, who regaled Jack as they raced around in their golf cart with wonderful, not to be repeated John McEnroe. At first Jack seemed to us to be too much of the Florida that we didn’t want to be a part of—the retired-golfing part, but he is so much fun and so energetic and interesting that for him we have chosen to make an exception.

Then there’s Charlotte. She’s an insurance agent in Boca and lights up the place when she comes into the Owl for breakfast. She’s one of the few people who were born and raised in Delray and has seen all the changes—the downs and now the ups. Other long time residents pine for the old days when Delray was a sleepy place, but not Charlotte. She likes the fact that the controlled growth here has meant that there is all sorts of work for young people; and so, if they want to—and most do—they can have an income and a life without moving south to Miami or north to Atlanta.

Troy always sits at the end of the counter down by where the Owl stashes the left-behind newspapers. He owns two tow trucks and in spite of rising gas prices manages to eek out a living. He’s married to one of the waitresses. Troy is from upstate New York and like Jack followed family south as they sought to get away from the deteriorating economy of New York’s rust belt and the lake-effect snows that buried them every winter in cold and isolation. He sits by the papers so he can get his hands on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Rona is always happiest when she gets the seat next to his so they can work on it together while schmoozing about what else is in the paper. Especially this winter the presidential primaries about which he knows a lot and has many nuanced views. Listening in on his morning monologue is about as good as tuning in to Morning Joe on MSNBC. Troy can and does take all sides or all perspectives so on his “show” he doesn’t need any guests.

Joe is a morning regular. Like Jack, he too is retired, but not in the traditional way because of age. He’s only in his late 30s and made a fortune, according to another regular, in the construction business. One he built literally brick by brick. We’ve gotten to know him and over the weeks we have learned his life story. He wasn’t much good at school so he dropped out at 16 and joined his father who was a bricklayer. Joe got quite good at that but quickly realized he didn’t want to do only that for the rest of his life, so on weekends he began a handyman business, doing home repair jobs for people he knew. He was so good at it, he could do so many things so reliably and well, that quite soon he gave up his day job so he could tend to his rapidly-growing business which almost as quickly he transformed into a full-blown contracting business. He’s from New Jersey and was fortunate to catch and ride the rising real estate boom. In addition to building and selling houses, Joe also segued into constructing commercial properties, including structures that housed electronic communications networking equipment. A very specialized form of construction he told us about one morning, the details of which I have not only forgotten but never even understood. Bottom line—his company got so expert at this kind of work that he received a $200 million subcontract from, he told us with a hint of embarrassment, Halliburton. And soon thereafter, with that in hand, he sold his company, got married, and moved to Delray so that he could spend most of his time helping to raise his children. Though he is concerned now that his four-year-old daughter and soon-to-be-born son need to see daddy and mommy do something outside the house so they will learn about the importance of work. So he’s started a handyman business again and is looking for small jobs. He promises not to grow it, and vows no more dealings with the likes of Halliburton!

Clarissa is a waitress at the W ___ Diner. I have never met anyone with more emotional and physical vitality. Or a more optimistic spirit. I don’t know how she does it. She works three jobs to keep her head above water and also is studying to become operating room assistant. Every morning we hear about the operation she witnessed the night before. It’s sometimes hard to keep the food down as she goes into lurid detail. Rona, of course, loves every word. She’s already a trained and certified EMS technician but can’t find any work of that sort since one of her jobs, helping out at her son’s school, which she is committed to continue, conflicts with the rare fill-in EMS jobs that have been offered to her. She thinks, though, that if she can complete her OR training at about the time her son moves on (she works at his school since he “has problems there” and she wants to be available every day to intervene to help him if he needs it—which unfortunately appears to be often), at that time she’ll be able to put the pieces of her plan together. That is, unless her Multiple Sclerosis “gets her first.” As she puts it with a chuckle.

There is also Michele who started the Woolbright Farmers Market where Rona gets her metaphoric tomatoes. You’ve met her before. She’s the Thanatologist who works with the dying and their families. But as an antidote to all the illness and death and sadness she longed for some work in her life that was about growth and life and vitality. Thus her interest in organic produce. But as we have witnessed, the market has turned out also to be a venue for her to continue her deep and caring involvement with people who are both her customers and friends.

Mrs. Wilson is the mother of two sons who own Wilson’s Barbeque. As in most Florida towns there is a decidedly black section here, which in the not-to-distant past was known by too many white locals by a very different, now unprintable name. But call it now what you will—it still very much exists and Wilson’s is situated right on the border of it and that part of town where the white folks live. One sultry day Rona and I were sitting on a couple of chairs while the younger son (the older brother is the pit master) was slowly filling take out orders. Ours included—a half order of ribs and two pulled-pork sandwiches with extra-hot sauce. Next to me was an elderly woman who turned out to be Mrs. Wilson. Without glancing my way she began, unasked and unprovoked, to tell her story. How she grew up on a farm not too far from where we were sitting. “Out there by those gated communities. You know in those days there was nothin’ but farms. Tomato farms.” Rona’s ears perked up. “Lots of them. Hundreds, maybe thousands of acres of them. Nothin’ but tomatoes far as you could see. Most of them for canning. To tell you the truth I don’t know where they sent them.

"All I know is that my mother and father and all my brothers and sisters we worked those farms. I had four sisters and three brothers. All older than me and all of them now passed.” She took a deep breath and continued, “Well, it sure was a different time back then. It was hard work but honest. Not what I see around me these days.” With a grand sweep of her arm she took in the entire town of Delray. “No, no. No sirree. Those days are gone. But I’ve got two good boys here.” Her smaller gesture took in both of them and their modest place. “Yes sir. I’m mighty proud of them. You see,” and for the first time she turned to look at me, “it’s very difficult for boys like them [the younger son looked to me to be at least 50]. To make a go of things. Even to survive. I’m one of the lucky ones to have boys like mine. Working so hard. To have their own business. How many folks like us do you see with businesses like this one here? Not that many. And do you know why?” Without stopping for my attempt at an answer, she answered her own question, “That’s ‘cause there are too many things pullin’ on boys like these. And then those that want to get started, how easy is it for them to get the help, the backing they need? I’m here to tell you, though things have changed since I was a girl, not by that much. Not enough.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think what to say. So she said, “Looks like Henry’s got your order ready. Enjoy it. They know what to do with ribs. It was nice talking with you.”

You’ve met the owner of Ocean View Optical who makes a good enough living selling designer frames to folks from the gated communities to keep his two kids in private school and to enable his wife to stay at home and, as he puts it. “shop ‘til I drop.”

Neighbors here include a former MIT professor who is also the CEO of a significant electronics business in Cambridge and who was also the former chair of WGBH, Boston’s public television station; two teachers from Valley Forge who also now own a string of inherited, family-developed properties in Palm Beach; a 95-year-old Nantucket scion who has three places here—one for herself, another for her daughter, and a third for her daughter’s daughter. So that one is always here to look in on her. She is known as Ticket, and she is undoubtedly, considering her noble and at times imperious being, the etymological source for the proverbial “That’s the Ticket”; another couple are originally from Oceanside, Long island but now live in upstate New York where he has numerous car dealerships; one fellow, Joey, owns one of the smaller places and comes here every afternoon after the stock market closes—he’s a trader—to spend two hours windsurfing; another is the mayor of Boca Raton who keeps a place here for weekends, but we’ve never seen him or any member of his family; then there is Phil who hides out here as often as possible—not from creditors or the law, as far as we know, but rather from his 97-year-old mother who, if she knew where to find him, would call her, he claims, at least 50 times a day—to let him know about every belch, hiccup, and yes bowel movement.

Other’s we’ve met thus far include the owner of our place and her partner. Sharon was a moderately successful player on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour and after she gave it up in her early 30s went to work for a golf and sports management company which she now owns—she has more than 200 employees, manages all the public golf courses in Broward and Palm Beach Counties and on the side runs the annual Delray tennis tournament with has attracted James Blake and Andy Roddick among others. Not a usual line of work for a woman!

There’s Johnny Mango too. That’s in fact his name, and he’s also from New Jersey. He owns and very personally operates the areas largest and most exotic garden center. While wandering among his thousands of orchard plants Frank Sinatra pours forth from dozens of speakers. After a while, it gets under your skin and you end up with a bounce in your step and armloads of orchids and bromeliads you bop out to you car, which is parked at its own specially demarked place—“Vic Damone” or “Frankie Avalon” or “Robert DeNiro” or “Tony Bennett,” but not in the Chairman of the Board’s spot where the Mango Man’s red Corvette is perennially and conspicuously parked.

Christopher, the busboy at the Owl, also works on computers and is trying to save enough money to get himself back to Australia where he has been promised at job at a botanical garden. Brian was last year’s RE/MAX’s real estate salesman of the year and is somehow still doing well in spite of the collapse of the local real estate economy. “Guys,” he says, “from Latin America are still showing up with suitcases full of hundred dollar bills and buying $10 million casas by the ocean.” His brother had been the manager of the Florida Marlins and is now general manger of the Seattle Mariners.

And my mother’s roommate at the HealthSouth Rehab Hospital is a Cuban woman, Minerva, who had a moderate stroke and is visited every day at lunch time by her daughter, whose husband is a Formula One racecar driver, and daughter-in-law who bring her Cuban food. She hates the hospital fare and who can blame her when there are instead plates of homemade ropa vieja and arroz con pollo and rice and beans. Rona and I are careful to coordinate our visits with theirs and always remember to bring our own utensils. They are a wonderful family; and, though Minerva has a long way to go before she can again be independent, with that loving family, and not to leave out that food, she will be fine. Just fine.

And so will we be down here away from New York. Though I do miss those mornings with Salman. But to tell you the truth he hasn’t written anything terrific since Midnight’s Children. So who cares!

But we’ve run out of tomatoes and need to get some more.